One of the most special things you can do on a trip to Rome is to take a tour of the Vatican. My wife and I both looked forward to our visit.

Before we left home I went online and booked a tour through Viator Travel. The tour was described as Skip the Line: Vatican Museums Walking Tour including Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Rooms and St Peter’s, for $74.99 each. Visitng the Vatican is a once in a lifetime event, and we both looked forward to it.

Our first challenge was deciding how to get from our hotel, the Sheraton Roma, to the Vatican. The bus from the hotel would take us downtown to a location that was “near all the major sites,” except for one — the Vatican. I thought the Vatican would be near the Colosseum, but I was wrong, it is actually several miles away in the northwest part of Rome. So, the hotel bus was not an option. I spoke to the concierge at the hotel, he told me the best option was to take a taxi. The doorman got a cab for us: the fare to the Vatican would be 20 Euro.

It was morning rush hour, the streets were congested, and we had the chance to watch as drivers on motor-scooters cut in between cars and trucks every time traffic stopped for a red light.

I’ll say this for the people on those motor-scooters: they are braver than I am! :-)

After a 20-minute drive we arrived at the Vatican. I had thought that we would pull up in front of St. Peter’s Square, but we did not — we arrived on the other side of the Vatican at the entrance to the Vatican Museum. I was glad that we would not have to wait on line for our tour; even at this early hour there was already a 90-minute wait to get in.

We made our way to a stairway across the street from the museum entrance where we would meet our guide. Several tour companies use that stairway as a meeting place, and where they organize the tour groups of 10-20 people and introduce them to their guide.

We met our tour guide, Simon, and were issued our radios. These small devices hung around our necks, we used ear-buds to listen to Simon as he conducted the tour. Every group had their own radio on a different frequency and the system worked perfectly, we never had any interference from any other group’s radio.

Simon gathered us up and we crossed the street to the Vatican Museum entrance. The entrance is on the side of the Vatican where the original fortress wall was built.

The entrance to the Vatican Museum. A guide is holding up a piece of paper so that his tour members can follow him.

The first thing we had to do once we entered the building was to clear security. Entering the Vatican is like entering an airport terminal: it’s loud, crowded, and everyone must go through a metal detector and have their bags scanned.

After we cleared security Simon got us back together again as a group and led us to the beautiful Vatican gardens.

Part of the beautifully landscaped gardens at the Vatican.

We were also able to see the original transmitting tower for the Vatican Radio.

This transmitter is no longer in use. Since it was built by Marconi so they have left standing as a historical landmark rather than taking it down.

So many people take the tour that the Vatican wants to avoid anything that might slow down the flow of people once they moved indoors. Their solution was to set up information kiosks outside the museum where guides can describe what the tourists will see inside.

Simon, our guide explained the painting "The Last Judgement" to us.

 

This chart provided a detailed description of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.

Simon, our guide, is a college student, working towards his Masters degree in art history. His love of art was obvious to us during the tour. His detailed explanations provided an insight we might otherwise have not had.

As Simon took us through the Museum we saw paintings, tapestries, statues, every type of art you can imagine. The breadth and variety of the Vatican art collection will take your breath away.  One constant throughout the tour was how crowded it was.

One of the many crowded hallways that we went down. Simon, our wonderful guide, did not have a small flag on a stick to hold up to show us where he was, so he held up a water bottle instead.

While the artworks were beautiful, I must admit that I am not a great fan of art, and after a while, it all started to look the same. I knew however that we would soon reach the one thing I was most looking forward to: The Sistine Chapel. Little did I know that it would also be the most disappointing part of the tour.

The Sistine Chapel

The beautiful paintings on the chapel ceiling were painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti during the 1500s. Unfortunately,  450 years of burning candles in the chapel created a layer of soot on the ceiling that hid a great amount of the detail and beauty of these magnificent paintings. A complete restoration of the ceiling began in 1979 and was completed 20 years later. Simon explained that Kodak had funded a large amount of the restoration with the condition that no photos could be taken in the chapel: if someone wanted a photo they could buy a book or a postcard. He told us that no photos were allowed due to copy write and that photos with flash could damage the paintings, but this was the only place in the Vatican where photos were not allowed.

This prohibition did not mean much to me, I didn’t plan on taking any photos, but I did look forward to seeing the ceiling.

When we got to the Chapel entrance Simon again explained that no photos or videos were allowed once we went in, and that we should only speak in whispered tones since this was a Chapel where the Pope sometimes holds services. He also explained that he was not allowed to conduct a tour in the Chapel, and he would meet us at the exit at the far end. With those comments from him, we went through the door and entered the Chapel.

We walked into a room that was so crowded that it reminded me of Grand Central Station at 5 o’clock on a Friday evening. Wall-to-wall people bumping into each other, jostling each other.

Even though photos and videos were not allowed, that did not stop some of the wiseguys from trying to take them. As soon as the security guards saw this they started shouting “No photo! No photo!” or “No video! No Video!” If the crowd got too loud, the guards would clap their hands or blow whistles to get everyone to quiet down.  This was not the atmosphere that I had expected for the Chapel. I had hoped to be able to quietly gaze upon the wonders of Michelangelo’s works — unfortunately that was not meant to be.  The Chapel is a large area, 43 feet wide by 131 feet long, with room for a lot of people. The crowd and the noise from everyone talking and the guards shouting simply made me want to leave as soon as I could.

St. Peter’s

Our next stop was the largest church in the world: St. Peter’s. Why is it called St. Peter’s? I did not know, but the answer is fairly basic — St. Peter is buried beneath the church. You can see his tomb, but it is not part of the standard tour, you need to take a second tour to see his resting place.

Simply put, St. Peter’s is spectacular. The size is one of the first things you notice; it is 730 feet (220 m) long, 500 feet (150 m) wide, and so large that it can hold more than 50,000 people inside. The size is amazing, but the great beauty of everything in it cannot be compared to anything in the world.

There was, of course, a huge crowd in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta —  it was so large that I could not get close enough to get a good view or picture.

We saw a massive marble crypt holding the remains of Pope John-Paul II. Simon explained that he was placed in crypt after he was beatified.

And then we saw something that just seemed odd to me. We saw the crypt that serves as the final resting place for Pope John XXIII. It was odd because one side of the crypt was glass and you could look in at him.

His Holiness, Pope John XXIII

The Pope is in his Papal garments and is, thankfully, wearing a death mask.  There was something about it that just did not seem right to me, from someone bumping into me and saying, “Excuse me, I need to take a picture of the dead Pope!” to the young child with his face pressed up against the glass to get a better look, just like he would look at the penguins at the aquarium.

At this time our tour ended, we all thanked Simon for the four hours he spent with us. He did a magnificent job.

We walked around some more, marveling at the great beauty of St. Peter’s. As we were getting ready to leave I managed to get a photo of a wonderful scene.

Light shining down on people in St. Peter's.

We went outside into St. Peter’s Square.

St. Peter's Square features an Egyptian Obelisk in the center.

We admired the square, then left the Vatican grounds. Our first stop was in front of a food stand where we each ordered one of Italy’s treasures, gelato! Italian ice cream is delicious, much thicker and more flavorful than what I am accustomed to here in the States. We tried to eat gelato every day.

We walked away from St. Peters, even from a distance it remains an impressive sight.

St. Petere's Basilica towers over every other structure in Rome.

We soon came upon Castel Sant’ Angelo, a massive fortress built on the banks of the Tiber River. It originally served as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian (AD 130-139), but it later served as a dungeon, and eventually a place where the Pope could seek shelter in time of danger. A covered passageway connects Castel Sant’ Angelo to the Vatican.

Castel Sant' Angelo overlooks the Tiber River.

Atop the Castel is a statue of an angel. The statue depicts the angel who, according to legend, appeared on top of the fortress in the year 590 and miraculously ended the severe plague that had infested the city of Rome.

The Ponte Sant'Angelo (Sant' Angelo bridge) crosses the Tiber River, leading to the Castel Sant' Angelo. The bridge features several statues by Bernini.

We crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo, found a cafe where we had lunch, then took a taxi back to the hotel. The cab driver told us that the fare would be 40 Euro, not the 20 Euro we paid that morning because demonstrators had forced the police to close down several major streets in the area, and he would need to take a much longer route to get to our hotel.

Was he telling the truth, or did he see us as tourists that he could take advantage of? I don’t know, but we had to deal with demonstrators closing streets late on during the trip, which led to one of our worst days of the vacation. But that’s another story that I will share in a later post.